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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 7
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 9

 p77  Chapter VIII
Conquest of Transalpine Liguria, South of the Durance

As we hear absolutely nothing of any distinct war between the Romans and the Intemelii we are led to infer that they were involved in the campaign described in the last chapter and reduced to subjection in common with their neighbours the Ingauni.​1 For, pace Strabo and the modern geographers, who follow Napoleon in carrying the Alps on eastward, at the back of the Riviera as far as Savona, I venture to think that those mountains should be considered as belonging to the Apennines, there being nothing of an Alpine character about them.​2 I shall at all events take the liberty for the purpose of this sketch of considering Vintimiglia and the Col de Tenda as the Eastern termination of the Maritime Alps. Between Vintimiglia and Nice is interposed the whole breadth of the range terminating in a succession of bold headlands, forming a series of natural harbours just where they are of little advantage to commerce, from the sparseness of the population and the absence of trade with the interior.

 p78  While the distance in the straight line followed by the railway, tunnelling through the necks of the projecting headlands, is about 25 miles from the Nervia to the Var, the course of the Antonine Maritime Itinerary which follows the windings of the coast more than doubles the distance.

Monaco (Portus Herculis Monoeci) and Villefranche (Olivula) are the two best known of these 'portus' of the Antonine Maritime Itinerary.

At the period with which we are dealing, i.e., the Ligurian 80 years' wars between B.C. 190‑110, the armies of the Republic made no attempt to overcome the combined opposition of nature and man at this point. For the ridges of the Maritime Alps, where they approach the sea, were, as I have remarked above, the strongholds of the hardiest and most daring of the Ligurian tribes, who were not dispossessed till the reign of Augustus.

In dividing the Gauls into Cisalpine and Transalpine, as is commonly the custom, we are apt to forget that to make that division exhaustive, we should add the "Gentes Alpinae" or dwellers in the Alps, as they are properly styled by Pliny.3

The regular armies of the Republic, which conquered Liguria on both sides of the Alps, were almost invariably conveyed by sea, and it was mainly by sea that communications were kept up between Pisae, Genoa and Marseilles. For in Liguria, where the Romans had no intention of settling, and founded no colonies at any time,​4 road-making by no means immediately followed conquest as elsewhere. They were in no hurry to provide a coast road convenient for Gallic invasion.  p79 Besides, the Romans had another good reason for pulling up for the present at Vintimiglia.

For Transalpine Liguria, the Λιγυστική of the Greeks, was already occupied by the Massiliots, who had planted colonies along the coast, of which the most conspicuous was Nicaea, in the sunny expanse between the Alps, the Var, and the sea. With their practised eye for trading posts, the Phocaean Massiliots were not slow to pitch on this splendid site, now occupied by the city of Nice, defended on all sides by natural barriers, and wide open to the sea, of which they had just become masters by a victory, 'Νίκη' — over the Carthaginian fleet off Corsica.

Beyond the Var, westward, between the Alps and the sea there is a band of comparatively flat coast, extending some 20 miles as far as the river Siagne, at the foot of the Esterel mountains. This striking range of volcanic peaks composed of red porphyry rocks terminates in the bold headland of Cap Roux, forming the western horn of the Bay of Cannes. From the flat coast half-way between the Alps and the Esterel, a long narrow cape, broadening at its sea end, projects far into the Mediterranean, forming a natural breakwater. On the eastern side of the neck of this cape, the Massiliots founded another city which they called 'Antipolis' (Antibes) or "the city opposite" Nicaea.

It was not till they were summoned to their assistance by the Massiliots that the Romans undertook military operations to the west of the Alps in the region between the Var and the Rhone, which I shall continue to describe as Transalpine Liguria.

It was in the year B.C. 155 that Massiliot envoys arrived in Rome, with earnest entreaties for assistance against their Ligurian assailants. Not only was the mother city closely beleaguered by her persistent foes, the Salyes, but siege was also laid to Nicaea and Antipolis by tribes now heard of for the first time — the Ligurian Oxybii and Deciates. It is somewhat strange  p80 that the Vediantii, a tribe of the Ligures Capillati, whose oppidum, the modern Cimiez, was in close proximity to Nice, are nowhere mentioned as joining in the attacks on the Greek settlers.

These three tribes, or confederation of tribes, Salyes, Oxybii, Deciates, between them seem to have occupied the whole stretch of the coast from Marseilles to the Var. At all events these are the only names mentioned by Strabo or Polybius. The latter, who was contemporary with these events, is our chief authority for the few facts handed down to us about the beginning of Roman military operations in Transalpine Liguria.

The Ligurians of the coast are not included in the formidable list of Alpine tribes subdued by Augustus, and preserved to us by Pliny, who copied them from the inscription on the monument of La Turbie. They are enumerated, as far as they can be identified, in their order from East to West.

Having given a careful hearing to the representations of the envoys from Marseilles, the Senate decided to send in the first instance three Roman commissioners to endeavour to bring the Ligurians to reason by peaceful remonstrance.

Proceeding to the Ligurian coast by sea, with a small unarmed retinue, the commissioners, of whom the chief was Flaminius, directed their course to the chief oppidum of the Oxybii — a place called Aegytna, near the mouth of a river, which Polybius calls the Apron.​5 That Aegytna may be identified with Cannes, and the Apron with the river Siagne seems on the whole most probable. For Aegytna was a few miles to the west of Antipolis (Antibes) and no other place agrees so well as Cannes with the required distance and the existence of a river with flat ground near its mouth to hold the camp which the Consul Opimius pitched on its bank the following year.

 p81  The competing sites for the honour of identification with Aegytna are Frejus (Forum Julii), Agay, on an almost landlocked bay in the heart of the Esterel, and Encourdoules, a most interesting Ligurian oppidum perched on an eminence above Vallauris and commanding a splendid view of the coast, from which the Cap d'Antibes protrudes. In point of archaeological interest, Encourdoules, as I have remarked in the special Chapter devoted to the Ligurians,​a is worthy of being ranked by the side of Entremont.

We may assume then that it was at Cannes, where the Roman Commissioners put ashore.

But before the whole party had landed, the Oxybians who were on the look-out rushed down from their stronghold and fell upon the servants of the commissioners while in the act of unpacking the baggage.

Hurrying to the assistance of his retinue, two of whom were killed in the fray, Flaminius himself was severely wounded, and barely escaped with his life to the vessel, which lay off the shore. Making for Marseilles, as being the nearest friendly port, though more than 100 miles to the westward, the Roman Commissioners put in there, and leaving their wounded chief to the careful nursing of their faithful allies, hastened back to Rome to report the outrage.

On receipt of this intelligence, the Senate at once sent orders to the Consul Quintus Opimius, who had his head-quarters in Cisalpine Gaul at Placentia, to fit out an expedition to avenge this glaring insult. In connection with this expedition, it is worthy of notice that already in these early days, Placentia rather than Pisae had become the Roman base for operations on the coast of Provence. This fact should be borne in mind in connection with the course of the Via Julia Augusta, the road constructed B.C. 12 by Augustus to connect the Riviera stations of the Maritime Alps with Rome, which was carried inland through Placentia in preference to following the coast.

 p82  In this instance too, as previously, in his account of the course of Hannibal's passage, Polybius, although now describing events which happened when he was in his prime, is a most unsatisfactory guide in point of geography. He barely informs us that "Quintus having assembled his forces at the city of the Placentines, marched across the mountains of the Apennines and arrived in the country of the Oxybians."6

From this passage the reader unacquainted with the geography of the region would naturally infer that the Apennines were the chief obstacle which Opimius would have encountered in his march from Placentia on the Po to Aegytna on the coast. Not a word is said, directly or indirectly, about the main range of the Maritime Alps, which lay right across his further advance by road. As far as Polybius is concerned we are left absolutely in the dark as to how the expedition really got to Aegytna.

To anyone acquainted with the geography of the district it becomes clear that after crossing the Apennines to Genoa or Vada Sabata Opimius must have proceeded to Aegytna by sea. For, had he accomplished the as yet unattempted task of carrying an army across the Maritime Alps, he must have descended on Nice, and first encountered the Deciates who were laying siege to Nice, instead of the Oxybii at Aegytna, as stated in the text of Polybius.

Sailing up the River 'Apron' (la Siagne) Opimius landed his troops and pitched his camp on the bank near its mouth. After devoting the two or three hours requisite​7 to the never-omitted precaution of fortifying the camp, the Consul, without further delay, led his men to the assault of the enemy's stronghold.

In the absence of the main body of its defenders, still apparently engaged in the siege of Antipolis, the Oxybian stronghold fell an easy prey to the Romans.  p83 As a sharp punishment Aegytna was levelled to the ground and the chief instigators of the outrage on the Commissioners taken prisoners and sent in bonds to Rome.

No sooner did the Oxybii hear of the destruction of Aegytna, than abandoning the siege of Antipolis and without waiting for the arrival of their allies, the Deciates, they hurried homewards to encounter the Romans.

In the fight which ensued, the Oxybii, single handed, proved no match for the Roman legionaries, and were soon put to flight with great slaughter. With the Romans in hot pursuit, the Oxybii fled towards Nice in the utmost confusion, never stopping til they fell in with the Deciates, who had abandoned the blockade of Nice to come to the aid of their allies.

But the Deciates, who had probably been delayed by the difficulty of passing the Var, came up too late to render other assistance than that of opening their ranks to let the fugitives through, and closing them up to stay the pursuit of the Romans. After an obstinate resistance, the Deciates were in their turn overwhelmed, and both tribes were reduced to complete subjection. Neither Oxybii nor Deciates appear to have given any more trouble to the Greek settlers, to whom, as we are informed by Polybius, they were bound to give hostages, at stated intervals, for their good behaviour.

Although the Roman army was quartered in the district for the winter, the Romans on this occasion abstained from annexing any territory, handing over to the Massiliots the strip of coast which had been the scene of their late victories. This concession of the territory was subject to the condition of a right of passage over the road to be constructed by the Massiliots along the coast from Nice to Marseilles.

For the next 30 years, from B.C. 154‑125, we hear nothing of Ligurian wars, although the conquest of the Salyes, the predominant tribe or confederation in Transalpine Liguria, still remained to be effected. As  p84 the period of Roman history was marked by such important events as the third Punic War, the final destruction of Carthage, and the siege and capture of Numantia in Spain (at which Polybius assisted), the Romans had their hands full of fighting elsewhere. It is therefore probable that even had the Massiliots applied for aid earlier, no Roman troops could have been spared for their protection against the Salyes.

When however in the year B.C. 125 Massiliot envoys arrived at Rome, representing the gravity of the situation at Marseilles from the increasing pressure of the siege, no important military operations elsewhere prevented the Senate from promising immediate assistance. Not only were the Romans free from the necessity of carrying on war elsewhere, but the Senate was glad to be able at one stroke to accommodate its ancient ally, the conservative republic of Marseilles, by sending on foreign service the radical Consul, Fulvius Flaccus, the impetuous coadjutor of the Gracchi, whose land-agitation was now at its height.

Nor is it unlikely that Fulvius started willingly enough for Gaul, and with the approval of his friend Caius Gracchus, in the hope of acquiring by his conquests fertile territory beyond the Alps, wherewith to satisfy the land hunger of the populace at home.

As a matter of fact, the colonization of Narbonne in B.C. 118 — the first regular Roman colony settled beyond the Alps — did directly result from the four years' campaign initiated by Fulvius Flaccus. But both he and his friend Caius Gracchus had three years previously lost their lives in one of the city broils, which disgraced Roman politics during that turbulent era. The sporadic settlements of Roman citizens in Spain were not as yet real colonies, and the decree forced through the Senate by the radicals, to establish the Roman colony of Junonia on the site of Carthage, was annulled, when the conservative party in the Senate recovered its authority.

It seems doubtful whether the Romans fully realized  p85 at the outset of the campaign, how formidable a foe they had to encounter in the Salyes, or Salluvii — the Latinised form of their name. Hitherto, on the Riviera, the heavy-armed legionaries had had to do mostly with light-footed Ligurian mountaineers, whom to find was a tougher job than to beat, as one of their historians truly remarked.8

It was far otherwise with the Salluvii, who occupied the comparatively open country between the Rhone, the Mediterranean, and the Durance. According to Strabo, their territory included the pastures bordering on the Rhone about Arles. This gave them facilities for horse-breeding, denied to the Ligurians whom the Romans had hitherto encountered along the Italian and French Rivieras. Thus the Salluvii were enabled to put into the field a formidable force of cavalry, always a weak arm with the Roman armies before Caesar's conquest of Transalpine Gaul, which furnished an inexhaustible supply during the Civil War, and subsequently during the Empire. Arles itself, as we are told by Ptolemy,​9 was a city of the Salyes, being styled "Arelate Salyum."

Occupying a central position at the South-Western corner of the Alps, between the Riviera and the Rhone Valley, the Salluvii are a people who play a most important part in the story of the advance of the Romans into Gaul. Their territory, in fact, forms a sort of pivot on which it turns. Yet their very name is hardly known to British students of Roman history — a fact to be mainly accounted for by the loss of that part of Livy's history, which would have told us a great deal about them.

Our interest in the Salluvii is not confined to the campaigns of Fulvius Flaccus and Sextus Calvinus, but is revived twenty years later in connection with the battle of Aix and the great slaughter of the Ambrones and the Teutones in the valley of the Arc. For it was in the territory of the Salluvii that the attempted barbarian  p86 invasion of Italy was finally arrested.​10 All that we learn from Livy about the Salluvii is contained in the Epitome of Lib. LX: "Fulvius Flaccus primus Transalpinos Ligures domuit bello, missus in auxilium Massiliensibus adversus Salluvios Gallos, qui fines Massiliensium populabantur."

It will be observed that in this extract from the Epitome of Lib. LX the epitomist in referring to the Salluvii describes them in the first line as "Transalpinos Ligures" and in the second as "Gallos." The term 'Galli' is evidently used here in a geographical and not an ethnological sense. The word 'Gallus' means simply an inhabitant of 'Gallia' irrespective of nationality, just as the name Englishman is sometimes used to include all the dwellers within the limits of Britain. For there is no doubt that Pliny was correct in describing the Salluvii as "Ligurum celeberrimi ultra Alpes."​11 Both Caesar, Livy and Strabo use the word 'Galli' or its equivalent 'Celtae' in a double sense, sometimes general and sometimes particular. It is very necessary to bear this fact constantly in mind in reading the three writers I have named.

Having recently made several journeys through the country of the Salluvii, I may be excused for drawing the reader's special attention to this neglected corner of France.

While the Rhone formed the western limit of their territory, it is difficult to determine exactly where it terminated on the East. For whereas the main direction of the Rhone and of most of the rivers or torrents descending from the Alps and Apennines along both the French and Italian Rivieras is from North to South, in the country of the Salluvii the rivers run rather parallel with than at a right angle to the Mediterranean. The direct flow into the Mediterranean of the rivers fed by the water-bearing limestone of the Basses  p87 Alpes, has been blocked by the interposition of the isolated Volcanic range of the mountains of Les Maures and diverted into a great inland trough, running East and West. About the centre of this trough, dividing it into an Eastern and Western basin, there is a picturesque Col, near the modern town of St Maximin, which is famous for its magnificent church. This Col forms a watershed, dividing the basin of the Arc flowing westward into the Étang de Berre, from that of the Argens flowing eastward into the Bay of Frejus. The Col de St Maximin probably formed the Eastern limit of the territory of the Salluvii, who do not appear to have descended into the basin of the Argens, the lower half of which, including Forum Julii at its mouth, is assigned by Pliny to the Oxybii.12

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Gulf of Fréjus and valley of River Argens with view of Mont Roquebrune

Being already in possession of Arles, the Salluvii were pressing harder than ever on Massilia, which would probably have fallen into their hands but for its remarkable natural defences. For, as I have remarked above, its surrounding zone is sheltered from all attack from the north, whether of nature or man, by an encircling girdle of limestone hills, rising like a wall abruptly from the table-land. Against this outer rocky barrier, the Salluvii had hitherto fretted in vain.

Such then was the country of the Salluvii and such the circumstances under which, in B.C. 125, the consul Fulvius Flaccus was sent to the assistance of the hard-pressed Massiliots. As unfortunately no details of these campaigns have been handed down to us, we have nothing to guide us but the bare outlines supplied by the epitomes of Livy's lost books, the dates of the triumphs of the Roman commanders recorded in the Fasti Capitolini, and a few incidental notices to be found in various classical authors and notably Strabo. We are not even told from what Italian port Fulvius sailed, nor where he landed in Liguria. For it must be assumed that he conveyed his legions by sea to some point on the  p88 coast beyond the Maritime Alps, there being no thoroughfare as yet by land.

That this point was Forum Julii, the modern Frejus, can hardly be doubted by anyone sufficiently acquainted with the topography of Provence.

Having reduced the Oxybii to subjection in the campaign of Opimius, the Romans would have had no opposition to fear from that confederation in marching up the lower valley of the Argens.

The striking gap formed by the valley of the Argens between the mountains of the Moors and the spurs of the Basses Alpes could not have failed to attract the notice of the Roman flotilla, as it rounded the bold headland of the Cap Roux, as offering an irresistibly inviting short cut into the heart of the enemy's country. Well might Tacitus, who was associated with Forum Julii as the birthplace of his father-in‑law Agricola,​13 describe it as 'Claustra maris.' He might have added that it was also 'Claustra Galliae.' Its concave semi-circular Roman gateway — Western Gate — of which I lately excavated the foundations, still bears the name 'Porte des Gaules.'

As if Nature herself recognised the necessity of a barrier to invasion of Gaul by this open door, she has posted in the gap the rugged mass of Roquebrune, like a giant sentinel mounting guard over the valley. To strike straight at Entremont their stronghold, in the rear of the enemy besieging Marseilles, was obviously the surest way of compelling the Salluvii to withdraw their forces. It seems almost certain that these were the tactics adopted by the Romans.

But whatever course Fulvius Flaccus adopted, a second campaign was required to overcome the stubborn resistance of the Salluvii. For it was reserved for his successor Caius Sextus Calvinus in the following year to  p89 triumph over them. It is recorded in the Fasti Capitolini for the year B.C. 124, that "Caius Sextus Calvinus triumphavit de Liguribus Vocontiis Salluviisque."

From Strabo (p180),º however, we gather that the Salyes were far from being completely crushed. This is his summing up of the results of the two campaigns, i.e. of B.C. 125 and 124:

"Sextius, who broke up the confederation of the Salyes, founded, not far from Marseilles, a city (Aquae Sextiae) which was named after him and the hot waters, some of which they say have lost their heat. Here he established a Roman garrison, and drove from the sea coast which leads from Marseilles to Italy the barbarians, whom the Massiliots were not able to keep back entirely. However, all he accomplished by this was to compel the barbarians to keep at a distance of twelve stadia from those parts of the coast which possessed good harbours, and at a distance of eight stadia where it was rugged. The land which they thus abandoned he presented to the Massiliots."

This passage seems to prove that the whole stretch of the coast forming a fringe to the mountains of the Moors and trending southwards to Hyères from the mouth of the Argens, formed part of the territory of the Salyes or Salluvii. The names of tribes other than the Salluvii mentioned by Pliny as belonging to this region must be regarded as subordinate members of the Salluvian confederation.

The Author's Notes:

1 Intemelium (the modern Vintimiglia), the point at which the Romans had now arrived, is described by Strabo as a very considerable city, πόλις εὐμεγέθης. It was situated at the foot of the Maritime Alps on the Italian side, while Nice occupies a corresponding position on the French side.

2 Since the above was in type, I have seen with satisfaction that this view has been adopted in the latest edition of Ball's Alpine Guide (p2, Introduction).

3 Hist. Nat. III.19.

4 Albium Ingaunorum and Albium Intemelium were Roman Municipia, which differed from Colonies in their manner of originating. While a municipium was a provincial or foreign town admitted from without to Roman citizen­ship, a colony was a place to which a body of citizens was conducted from Rome.

5 Vol. II Fragments.

6 Polybius, XXXIII.2.

Thayer's Note: The Loeb edition of Polybius, which is the one online, nowhere mentions Placentia in connection with Quintus Opimius or the Oxybii. Placentia is mentioned only in Book III; the Oxybii — and Opimius' Ligurian campaign — only in Book XXXIII. The link I give above is to the fragments on the Ligurian War.

7 See preceding Chapter.

8 Florus, ch. XIX.º

9 Ptolemy, II.10, 15.

10 See map of mouths of the Rhone.

11 Plin. Hist. Nat. III.7.

12 Plin. Hist. Nat. III.5.

13 Julia, the mother of Agricola, had also a country residence near Vintimiglia, where she was barbarously murdered (A.D. 69) by the troops of Otho, in revenge for aid afforded to his rival Vitellius.

Thayer's Note:

a In my copy of the book as printed, Encourdoules is not mentioned elsewhere; the chapter on the Ligurians (ch. 5, q.v.) describes three oppida, but none is Encourdoules.

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